Saturday, August 20, 2005


No one would ever call an Iranian stoic. In fact, you might say that Iranians have a trembling lower lip rather than a stiff upper lip. Mourning is expressive and public and shared with friends, relatives, acquaintances, and colleagues.

Until you've been to an Iranian funeral, you know nothing about the culture. And until someone you love dies, you can be nothing but an interested observer.

This past week, someone I loved died. I was not the only one who loved her. She was one of those people who just get under your skin. Perhaps it is because of their own comfortable relationship with themselves, who knows? But from the first minute I met her, she was like family to me. She always seemed to understand my difficulties adjusting to Iranian culture and especially to tarof. Even before I could speak a word of Persian, we managed to share jokes and stories. I cannot tell you how we did it. I used to marvel at it myself. Sometimes we would talk for hours. She in Farsi and me in English. We never seemed to misunderstand each other. How is that possible?

Day 1
At 7 in the morning, K and I landed in her hometown. Looking down from the window of the airplane, I wondered if I would ever visit this part of Iran again, now that this woman was dead. In my mind, her oil-rich city belonged to her and her alone and not to the myriad of other relatives who lived there.

Before entering the house, we could hear the fresh screams of her sisters. Her children were still in Tehran where they were waiting to accompany her body down south. Every person who entered the house was greeted with wails and shouts and a flood of tears.

I was embarrassed. And exhausted. "We should call a doctor for your sister," I told K. "She needs a sedative."

"This is the way things are here," K told me. "We cannot call a doctor."

A woman entered the home beating her chest and crying. She and K's sister hugged and yelled and cried together.

There were times when I wanted to laugh. I couldn't help finding these extreme displays of emotion somewhat comical, which does not mean that they were not sincere.

Soon the house was full. It kept us busy preparing tea and orange juice and cold water. The children kept themselves busy anticipating the needs of new guests and bringing them drinks.

In the evening, we went to the airport to meet the body. A little boy played with the security guard at the gate to the landing strip. He ran in and out of the bars of the fence. His father chased him through the secure area.

The body arrived and was placed into the ambulance.

People collapsed on the ground.

My friend's young son picked his friends off the ground.

Still thinking like a foreigner, I thought, "How could they make their grief more of a show than his?"

Day 2: The Burial
The next morning we were up at 6:30 and at the house by 7. We arranged the ice and the cold drinks and the trays of dates and halvah (not halavah…) that we would bring to the graveyard.

At 8:00, the house was packed with women. The body was carried into every room of the house while the women wailed and beat their chests. I was terrified and shaking.

By the time we arrived at the graveyard, it was 110 degrees, dusty, and starting to fill up with families who came to picnic at the grave of a lost loved one.

There was a ceremony. The body was lifted onto the shoulders of sons and brothers and nephews and carried to her plot.

She was still in her Iran Air wrapping a chipboard box covered with a beautiful shawl that her best friend would later wear as a kind of chador.

My friend went into the grave wrapped in a simple shroud and facing Mecca. When it came time to pray on her grave, I knew what to do. I squatted down with the others, put three fingers on the grave like the others, and said Kaddish. Then I got up so that someone else could take my place.

Evening Prayers

That evening, the prayers were arranged for her. Her Koran teacher could not lead them, so another woman came in her place. She didn't want any men or boys to hear her. It was an ordeal kicking the sons and nephews out of the room. They did not want to leave to sit in another room.

The woman was such a cleric. She was officious and angry and complaining about us. She lectured us. I looked at my friend's daughters and we all started to smile and quietly laugh. "Well, at least she made them smile," I told K later.

I served fresh dates with walnuts in the centers. I think they were called Fatimeh's dates. I am not sure.

A young male cleric arrived later. He would not lead prayers unless everyone would cover up. My sister-in law looked at me and said, "What is it about our bare arms that has so much power?"

"Hey, it's nice to know that we still do have some power over men," I responded.

After the prayers, everyone relaxed and started to tell stories about our friend, sister, mother, and aunt. People were laughing, as they will do. It was at that moment that the full power of my grief hit me. I went out into the heat, sat on the window ledge, covered my face with my scarf, and started to cry.

K's nephew (just a couple of years younger than K himself) came to sit next to me and comfort me. Normally I would demand to grieve alone, but I let him comfort me.

"We Iranians, we cry at everything, but your tears are very powerful for us," he told me. "Uncle's wife," (Iranians are very literal about family relationships) "are we really so different anywhere in the world? When someone we love dies, don't we all feel the same grief?"

"That is the question I am asking myself," I told him. "I keep hearing that we are really different, but I do not feel it myself."

He called to his young daughter and his wife to come comfort me as well. As I let them, I felt how much I had changed in the last two years. I realized that the display of grief from others gave the family something to do. It gave them someone to comfort. It allowed them to think of something other than their own grief.

Day 3: The Mosque

Six in the morning, up and showered, and into the early morning heat to prepare for the morning at the mosque.

Trays of dates, cookies, and halvah are covered in plastic wrap.

Ice is always a problem. The water in the desert is not exactly the best, so all of the ice has to be made with mineral water. The family does not trust ice-sellers, so everyone is busy making ice in their packed freezers.

We prepare coolers and coolers with orange drink.

Bottles of water are packed in barrels of ice.

You cannot have too much to drink in the middle of summer in the desert cities of Iran. By noon, the air is so hot and dry that you feel like your eyeballs are cooking in your head. There is no water in your body other than the water you put into it.

When we arrive at the mosque, it is clear that there is no way that the women's area is big enough for the hordes of women who will arrive. K lifts the curtain that celebrates us from the men, but someone else lowers it. We pack into our tiny area. Soon, though, the curtain gets lifted and the women spill over into the spacious men's section.

Most Iranians, no matter how devout, go to mosques only to attend funerals. Their religion is integrated into their daily lives. Unless they have a family member or friend who is a cleric, they do not have any personal relationships with their religious leaders.

Despite the small size of the women's area, it is a much better place to sit than the men's area. It's more casual. You don't have to see the cleric. You don't have to pretend to listen to his 1-hour sermon. The women form little groups. They chat and cry. Some of them pray and read the Koran.

The first hour of the service is sung. When a woman dies, the hazzan sings this song that is sung for Fatimeh (Mohamad's daughter). I am not sure of the event: is she dying or is someone else? The song is like pouring salt into open wounds. There is long wail: "Mother, mother, mother get up!" The hazzan cries. "All women are mothers," he sings. "Even those women who have no children." The family wails. The chadoris cover their faces with their chadors and their shoulders shake from weeping. When the song ends I notice that quite a few of them uncover their faces to reveal dry eyes.

Noon: the Graveyard
We are doing the third and 7th day ceremonies together. So when the service is finished, we head over to the graveyard. An air-conditioned bus is waiting outside the mosque. An 8-year old great-nephew is calling out "Air-conditioned bus! Just 10,000 tumans! Ride with us!" When I come out he yells, "Kharigi [foreigner]! Kharigi! Come on board!"

We laugh.

We arrive at the graveyard. It is at least 120 degrees. (It's 54 degrees [129]," a taxi driver tells me, "but they never report that because they would have to close all of the factories. So it can be 53 here, but never 54.")

We go to the grave and cover it with flowers. Everyone is crowded around it. We have a truck with loudspeakers and a singer and so does the funeral party next to us. Our guy is saying, "Brothers, sisters, get moving it's too hot to crowd around the grave. Say your prayers and get moving." Very sensible. Their guy is singing and shouting commands as well.

The grave next to us is mourning a father and son. I assume they were killed in a car accident. A midget is lifting their pictures above his head. When the prayers are finished, the young men strap on drums and beat out a heartbeat while the women trill.

After about ten minutes, the young men come to our grave and drum for us. Mourning is sociable in Iran.

Afternoon: another Graveyard

"I want to visit my father's grave," K's nephew's wife tells me.

"I will come with you."

Her husband drives us to a mosque in the center of the city. We get out and go into the quiet, shaded graveyard. "The plots here cost 30 million tuman," V tells me. "When we got my father's plot, they were much cheaper.

We put on the flowered chadors that they are handing out.

"Since Ahmadinejad became president, they think they have to make us wear these chadors," V tells me. "I have fought with them a few times, but I never win." V never takes off her headscarf around us. I have only seen her hair once in 2 years and that was when we were alone and she wanted to show me her curls.

The chadors are scented with rosewater. I wear mine like a tallis. It's the best I can do.
When we get to her father's grave, I squat, put three fingers on the grave, and say my prayers. It always baffled me what people were doing at stranger's graves – what kinds of prayers they were saying… now I get it. It feels normal for me now.


Anonymous said...

Your account of the funeral and your grief made me cry. I cried because I miss you so much and want to be with you. I cried because of all the violence in the world - in Iran, in the U.S, in Iraq, in the Middle East - it's everywhere.
Why do humans choose war so often? Why is there so much hatred between religions, races, sexes?
Why can't I just give you a hug?

Anonymous said...

After reading your account and of your assimilation into the culture, I would think it time for you to return home for a while.

AJ said...

I cried too. For you, for your grief, for the great feeling of being surrounded by family.

I don't know of many people who would take the time from their daily routines to make the preparations for that many mourners. It is a different culture and one that values the comforts of family and friends.

Anonymous said...

Wow--an incredible description of the mourning process. Thanks for giving a glimpse into this culture. I love being able to be in contact with you through your blog. mj in aa